The Belgrade-Pristina dialogue recently resumed after a hiatus of 20 months. Successful negotiations must be informed by knowing the interests of both sides as the basis for compromise.
We know what Kosovo wants. Prime minister Avdullah Hoti insists that Serbia recognise Kosovo as an independent and sovereign state within its current frontiers, and for Kosovo to join international organisations such as the United Nations.
Visa-free travel by Kosovo passport-holders would be an important confidence-building measure, creating a positive atmosphere for negotiations.
What Serbia wants is less clear.
Efforts to date have rested on the assumption that Serbia will normalise relations with Kosovo in exchange for EU membership.
Though vague, ‘Chapter 35’ essentially conditions Serbia’s EU aspirations.
Every major step – from acquiring the candidate status, through starting negotiations, to opening chapters for negotiation – requires compliance with Chapter 35.
According to a survey by the Bureau for Social Research in Belgrade, nearly half of Serbs support EU membership.
An even larger number seeks employment and access to European markets. The EU represents 63 percent of Serbia’s total trade.
President Aleksandar Vucic publicly supports Serbia’s EU accession, but does he really want Serbia to join the EU?
Vucic wants to have his cake and eat it too.
Serbia’s double game
Serbia plays a double game. It benefits from EU financing to fight the coronavirus and via the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance.
At the same time, Serbia cosies up to Russia and China leveraging them against the West to extract preferential terms from all sides.
Serbia and Russia trumpet their common Slavic and Orthodox heritage, while expanding cooperation in the economic and security sectors.
Serbia defined EU warnings, signing a free trade agreement with Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Gazprom’s TurkStream pipeline began construction through Serbia in 2019. Gazprom has a majority ownership of Naftna Industrija Srbije, Serbia’s largest oil company.
Security cooperation is also expanding.
Serbia purchases weapons from Russia, including MiG-29 fighter jets, helicopters and tanks. Russia deployed S-400 surface to air missiles to Serbia during Slavic Shield 2019, a joint military exercise. Serbia hosts a Russian intelligence base in Nis, masquerading as a humanitarian and firefighting centre.
Serbia is also wooed by China, participating in its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. To date, China has provided $1.5bn [€1.3bn] in loans and more than $500m in investments, including equity for a steel plant in Smederevo and the Bor mining and smelting facility.
Belgrade benefits from China’s assistance with Covid-19, receiving medical equipment, including ventilators, masks, and medical experts from Wuhan, where the virus first appeared.
Vucic is also two-faced in dealing with Kosovo. He is publicly cordial, while privately disparaging Kosovo as a failed state and hub for organised crime.
Vucic hopes the EU will simply abandon the conditionality in Article 35; move ahead with Serbia’s candidacy; and leave Kosovo out in the cold.
For this to happen, the EU must overlook Serbia’s shortcomings regarding the rule of law, as well as its systematic media oppression.
Kosovo hasn’t helped its case by failing to govern effectively. The indictment of president Hashim Thaci for war crimes by the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor’s Office plays into Belgrade’s narrative that Serbia is the victim, while Kosovo is the source of instability undermining regional stability and international order.
Serbia cannot have it both ways.
Either it proceeds towards EU membership, which requires recognition of Kosovo, or it foregoes Euro-Atlantic integration and deepens ties with anti-democratic and anti-Western countries like Russia and China.
Specific conditions should be imposed for negotiations to continue.
Vucic should must publicly commit to EU-led mediation, knowing full-well where negotiations will lead. He has a mandate, having won an overwhelming parliamentary majority on June 21.
Both Serbia and Kosovo must implement all 33 existing agreements, recognising that the lion’s sharing of obstruction comes from Belgrade.
Both Serbia and Kosovo must disclose the status of 1,500 people missing from the war. Most of the disappeared are Kosovo Albanians, so the greater burden rests with Belgrade.
Deadlines concentrate minds
Negotiations cannot be open-ended. Both Serbia and Kosovo must accept a deadline. Twelve months from the recent resumption of talks is reasonable.
Until there’s a deal normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo, EU-Serbia negotiations on Serbia’s candidacy should be suspended. The EU should insist: “no progress; no chapters.”
If Serbia stonewalls, then the EU should normalise relations with Kosovo, including recognition and other benefits.
Serbia is at a fork in the road. Either it recognises Kosovo as an independent and sovereign state, or it will be excluded from Euro-Atlantic structures, left to fend for itself with anti-democratic rogue regimes.